A 19-year-old man at the Los Angeles County jail in Castaic was comatose and in grave condition Monday after being severely beaten by four fellow detainees, authorities said.
Anthony Fernandez of Pico Rivera was kicked and punched in the head and upper body Saturday afternoon in a 98-inmate, dormitory-style jail room at Pitchess Detention Center, said Deputy Scott Butler, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The incident occurred four days after Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley intensified scrutiny of the 18,000-inmate county jail system with the announcement of a task force that would probe five killings that have occurred since Oct. 21 at downtown L.A. jails.
While Cooley is particularly concerned by recent attacks meant to intimidate or retaliate against witnesses, the Pitchess beating appears unrelated to any upcoming criminal testimony, Sheriff's Capt. Ray Peavy said. Rather, it was "strictly an in-custody, in-house disagreement among inmates that resulted in violence," Peavy said.
The Sheriff's Department, which runs the county jail system, will conduct a routine internal affairs investigation to determine whether deputies violated any department rules in their handling of the incident, said Cmdr. John Vander Horck, who oversees the 6,300-inmate Pitchess Detention Center.
The assault occurred on the 1,600-inmate North Facility of the sprawling Pitchess complex. North Facility is generally safer than downtown's Men's Central Jail, where four of the five deaths being investigated occurred in the last seven months. High-risk prisoners, including about 550 accused murderers, are generally housed in cells at the downtown jail. North Facility holds many less dangerous inmates, who usually sleep and live together in dorm rooms.
In 2003, the department recorded 128 inmate-on-inmate assaults at North Facility, and 1,013 attacks at Men's Central Jail, which l holds about 5,000 more inmates than North Facility. Men's Central Jail's rate of attacks per 1,000 is nearly twice as high as North Facility's.
Saturday's assault occurred in an occupied dorm room about 2:15 p.m., said Butler, the jail spokesman. Many of the details were not available, including the length of the fight and deputies' response time. Vander Horck said those issues would be explored in the internal affairs investigation.
Peavey said four suspects had been identified and would face possible criminal charges.
The victim, who is serving a 180-day sentence for carrying a concealed kitchen knife, remained hospitalized Monday. Steve Whitmore, senior media advisor to Sheriff Lee Baca, said Fernandez was "near death" at one point. On Monday, Whitmore said the inmate was still in a coma, but hospital officials believed he would survive.
In a phone interview, the victim's stepfather, Mario Berny, 43, said he thought the Sheriff's Department was "probably not" adequately protecting Fernandez. "But I don't know all the facts or details," he added.
The county jail system usually averages two killings a year. The recent increase in slayings has brought criticism of Baca's management practices by Los Angeles County supervisors. Baca led reporters on a tour of Men's Central Jail on Wednesday, arguing that it desperately needs more money and staff.
Whitmore said that the Pitchess beating and other violent incidents have "intensified [Baca's] already intense focus on the situation."